In Arizona, a family caring for a child’s heart condition lost their house and car to medical bills they couldn’t pay. In St. Louis, a shelter closed and later a homeless man was found frozen to death in a trash bin. In California, a poor family was found dead in their van from carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Poverty is a death sentence,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a 2016 campaign rally. The audience nodded. They should’ve screamed. Look at the history. Look at the statistics. Conservative and neoliberal policies kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. When Republicans dismantle Obamacare, they kill people. When lawmakers from both parties shred the safety net, they kill people.
Neoliberal Democrats are complicit too. The devastating anti-poor measures that passed under the guise of “welfare reform” in 1996 were championed by Bill Clinton and supported by many Democrats in Congress. It cut cash payment to the poor and may have led to shorter life spans. It led to a 153 percent increase of deep poverty, with Americans living on $2 dollars a day. It led to people selling their plasma or food stamps for quick money.
Republicans, however, have gone even further, consistently shaping the GOP into the party of negligent homicide. They intentionally increase the structural violence of the state. The victims die but we don’t “see” them because our media focuses on the personal, not systemic. We’re trained to see authorities as legitimate, so it’s nearly impossible to recognize them as mass murderers. But the poor are dying in an ongoing crisis that needs a radical, humanitarian politics.
The US Is a Crime Scene
What is negligent homicide? It’s when you expose someone to risks that a reasonable person would say are unjustifiable. Death wasn’t the intention but the result. Like when a self-help guru accidently broiled visitors in his sweat lodge. Or the school driver with a bus full of kids sped over railroad tracks to outrace a train and got rammed.
Many cases involve a vehicle. The biggest case involves the largest vehicle in history: the nation state. In Plato’s oft-cited metaphor from The Republic, the ship of state can be dangerous when steered by the greedy.
When conservatives steer the state, “we the people” are in danger. We lose welfare, lose public land, lose health care, lose access to voting and lose legal protections. The humanitarian side of the state that provides for people is dismantled. Hierarchy is exploited for the wealthy as police and military are reinforced. Tax crusader Grover Norquist said the goal is to cut government so small, Republicans can “drown it in the bathtub.”
When they kill the state, they kill the many people who need it to live. Right now, someone who never had health care is dying in an emergency room. Right now, a child is screaming from hunger. Right now, a Black woman who has been stressed by racism for years clutches her chest during a heart attack.
In our nation of 325 million, the 40 million poor and 30 million without health care need the safety net to save them or save their lifespans from being cut by stress or sickness. Academic reports say it. Medical journals say it. Protesters say it. So, when our lawmakers dismantle the state, they commit negligent homicide. Any reasonable person can see the math and know the “free market” is an unjustified risk to the poor.
“We are making America great again,” President Trump said as Republicans smiled, big toothy smiles. He signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, selling it as the freeing of business from federal red tape and taxes. In reality, Republicans had signed the death warrant for thousands of people.
With a stroke of his pen, Trump ended Obamacare’s individual mandate, which forced people to either buy health insurance or pay a fine. Without it, 13 million people would leave Obamacare and some will die. Weeks earlier, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said on CNBC, “When people lose health care, they’re less likely to get preventive care, they’re more likely to defer health care they need and are more likely to die.” Ten thousand people. That’s how many he said would die. Ten Thousand.
And many were already dying. In 2009, a report found that 45,000 lives were lost annually from lack of health care, or one every 12 minutes. In 2010, 49.9 million Americans were uninsured; after Obamacare, it was down to 28 million in 2016. And with that 44 percent decrease, the annual death rate, based on the report, would be roughly, 26,000 people. How is it that they are invisible? How are these preventable deaths not seen as a crime?
In 2009, MoveOn.org made a video in which people held signs: One woman’s sign said her mom is nearly medically bankrupt; a nurse’s sign said her aunt has cancer. Face after face followed. A woman using a wheelchair, a man with a heart surgery scar and another man breathing by tubes — all held signs saying “we can’t wait” for health insurance.
Nine years later, I wonder if they got help. Did they live? Are they at risk of losing insurance as the Republicans attack Obamacare? In a few years, if MoveOn.org reshot that video with those people, how many of their faces would be replaced by gravestones?
The Killing Fields of Poverty
“One thing we’re going to be looking at very strongly is welfare reform,” Trump said at an October 2017 White House meeting. “People are taking advantage of the system and other people aren’t receiving what they need.” He shook his head in a tut-tut, “bad poor people” type of way as the cameras snapped.
On April 10, 2018, he issued an executive order for federal agencies to look at work requirements and block grants to states. It’s an easy target. Republicans are too scared to go after Social Security and Medicare before midterms, so they go after the poor, whom US lawmakers have demonized for decades as “social parasites.”
Last year, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston traveled from Skid Row to the Deep South to hurricane-battered Puerto Rico. He found a dying US. He documents how the 40 million poor scrape leftover food and compassion to survive day to day. Five million are in desperate conditions.
He saw women bitten raw from bed bugs in their tents. He saw a man whose teeth were rotted, yellow stubs. He smelled sewage spewing from a kitchen sink. He visited homes in Puerto Rico, smashed to splinters and rubble by the storm.
Six years before Alston’s travels, US scientists calculated the number of Americans who annually die from poverty in a 2011 report; it’s 291,000. Divided by the number of days in a year, that comes to 797 people a day. They die invisibly because we choose not to see them. They die away from the cameras. They die alone and scared. Officially, the fatal condition is diabetes, heart attack or high blood pressure, but really, it’s the weathering of the body by stress, grief and hopelessness.
Republicans have signaled to voters that if they’re still in power after the midterms, they plan to use the giant federal deficit caused by their tax bill to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps. If they do, the poor will die in the segregated zip codes that Alston visited. They are dying there right now.
The Humanitarian State
“It’s awesome, man,” said Scott Miller, a volunteer dentist for Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit group that sets up mobile medical clinics to give free dental and vision care alongside disaster relief. He just worked on a man’s teeth for four hours. Someone flashed a mirror in front of the patient, who smiled and said he couldn’t recognize himself.
“It’s the only thing I can do,” Miller told ABC News as his voice shook. “I can change somebody’s life just like that.” His sincere joy at repairing lives is a glimpse of what American humanitarian politics could be.
Imagine a politics that acknowledged the ongoing crisis of the poor and planned an immediate intervention. Imagine an administration that took billions from the Pentagon and Homeland Security to scale up nonprofits like Remote Area Medical so it could rent stadiums in the cities and towns for people to come from afar to get free dental care, mammogram tests, basic physicals and glasses.
Imagine a White House that nationalized vacant buildings and renovated them for those without homes. And made sure everyone had a Medicare for All card in their wallet. Imagine if everyone had a college to go to for free and a future they could see.
Americans could touch their new teeth and new glasses, knowing for the first time in generations that negligent homicide actually is a crime. And a lot of people were its victims, including conservative voters.
It sounds like a dream, but it happens everywhere all the time. In civil society, countless groups practice a humanitarian politics. Any “reasonable person” knows that when you heal poverty, a new world may not be the intention, but it is the result.